On Nov. 14, Michigan went to Villanova and hammered the defending national champions by 27. Ironically — or predictably, depending on how familiar you are with John Beilein — the Wolverines’ coach was the one pumping the brakes.
“This is a November win. That’s all it is,” Beilein said. “ … It won’t mean anything later in the year.”
One writer took a different view. Beilein, of course, has been coaching basketball twice as long as I’ve been alive. Shockingly, his take aged better than mine.
This isn’t a typical Michigan team, but you knew that already. You’ve seen how Beilein’s famed two-guard offense gave way to an attack centered around Zavier Simpson and his ball-screen mastery. You’ve seen how Simpson and Charles Matthews took assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defensive system and formed an identity around it. You’ve seen that result in the Wolverines’ best start in history.
But as Big Ten play progressed, the memory of that 17-0 record drifted further and further away. Michigan’s wins have kept piling up, but in an uninspiring fashion. The Wolverines dropped games at Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State, and fell to Michigan State at home. For months, their signature road win remained the blowout of the Wildcats.
And that trajectory, as much as anything else, has made this Michigan team atypical.
Down the stretch is when the Wolverines have often been at their best, as Beilein turns an island of misfit toys into a team nobody wants to play in the postseason. But for much of this season, Michigan’s best basketball appeared behind it.
Those emphatic wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue? Maybe they were just “November wins” after all — a footnote to the Wolverines’ postseason hopes.
But here we are now, eight days into March, and Michigan is 1-0 since the calendar flipped by virtue of a 69-62 win at Maryland on Sunday, a win after which Beilein stated his team was “as focused as we’ve ever been.”
Maybe the Wolverines’ typical trajectory wasn’t reversed after all — merely delayed instead. Without delving too far into cliches, Michigan’s season — as far as what’s applicable to this point in the year — might as well have started after its first loss in Madison on Jan. 19.
“One of the big things is we haven’t had the opportunity to grow from losses,” Beilein said then. “And we needed that growth today, because we weren’t as good as we’d like to be.”
The Wolverines have had those opportunities now. At Iowa, Jon Teske was saddled to the bench with foul trouble as the Hawkeyes ran Michigan’s backup centers off the court. At Penn State, Matthews stewed, face-down and stat sheet in hand, cursing the 34 free throws and 12 offensive rebounds his team coughed up. And at Crisler Center two weeks ago, the Wolverines let a second-half lead fizzle away, scoring just nine points in a pivotal 15-minute second half stretch as Michigan State pulled away.
“You know, what you can’t do is figure out what you’re doing well,” Beilein said Friday. “You always can figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
Michigan doesn’t win games in March just because it’s March. Rather, it’s because of what happens before.
To the same degree that the resounding wins of November and December established the Wolverines’ ceiling, their four Big Ten losses established their floor and shone a light on their biggest weaknesses. Sending the Wildcats to the woodshed was a wake-up call for the rest of the nation. Court-stormings in Madison, Iowa City and State College, and the loss to the Spartans, were wake-up calls for Michigan itself.
In years past, those wake-up calls were more frequent and happened sooner. This year, they may have happened just soon enough.
“We really haven’t had ups and downs. We’ve only lost four games,” Beilein said after the win over the Terrapins. “But we’ve had some times this year that we really got pruned. Being a farm boy, when you get pruned, you come back stronger.”
You don’t have to squint terribly hard to see the ingredients for another March run, to go along with what we’ve seen from the Wolverines all year. Gut-punch losses to build off? Check. Freshmen such as David DeJulius and Colin Castleton giving serviceable bench minutes? Check. Responding to adversity, such as Matthews’ absence due to an ankle injury, with convincing wins over Nebraska and Maryland? Check.
And those ingredients are part of why Michigan enters Saturday’s de facto Big Ten title game against Michigan State with as much optimism as it’s had since last calendar year.
A win wouldn’t necessarily bring the regular season full circle. But it would be an indication — a sign that maybe the 2018-19 Wolverines are more familiar than we thought.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.